For many years, it has been assumed by animal shelters, rescues and veterinarians that any cat testing positive for feline leukemia will suffer and die within a relatively short period of time. In most cases, any cat or kitten testing positive is euthanized to spare the rescue or owner the expense and emotional trauma of a long and drawn-out illness. However, new information is now available about the outcomes for cats with feline leukemia. When a cat or kitten tests positive for feline leukemia, one of three outcomes may occur, depending on how deeply the leukemia virus has infected the cat’s body and on how strong the cat’s immune system is.
Type 1: Transitory Viremia
Known as “transitory viremia”, some cats and kittens with strong and healthy immune systems will manage to clear the leukemia virus on their own within 3-4 weeks of infection. Though this rarely occurs, it is worth keeping any healthy-looking leukemia-positive cat in isolation for a month and then retesting to see if the cat can reject the virus on its own. After no more than one month, a cat with transitory viremia should test negative for leukemia. At that time, the cat would be healthy and no longer contagious.
Type 2: The Chronic Carrier
In the “chronic carrier” state, the cat becomes infected with the feline leukemia virus but does not immediately die or become ill. A carrier will test positive for leukemia initially, on a follow-up test and throughout the rest of the cat’s life. In carriers, the leukemia virus infects a part of the cat’s body such as the bone marrow, spleen or lymph nodes, but the cat is able to keep the illness relatively under control. A carrier will eventually die from leukemia or complications resulting from leukemia, but in the meantime, the chronic carrier may enjoy many years of a healthy, normal life.
House of Dreams is one of the few cat rescues in the United States that accepts cats with feline leukemia. Located in Portland, Oregon, this feline-only shelter has a passion for helping cats with leukemia. For many years, they have fostered and found homes for leukemia-positive cats and kittens, keeping them completely separate from their other cats. On their website, House of Dreams states “Contrary to what most people believe, it is possible (and common) for FeLV cats to live for years with the disease, symptom free. We have known cats to live 10, 12, 14 years or longer with Feline Leukemia, enjoying the same health and quality of life as a kitty without the disease.”
Carriers are still contagious, so they must be fostered in isolation from other cats. However, a chronic carrier can be adopted into an indoor single-cat home and live a happy, healthy, normal life until the age that most cats would start having health problems due to old age.
Type 3: Classic Feline Leukemia
Many cats infected with feline leukemia fall into this category, those that quickly fall gravely ill and pass away within a few weeks or months of their initial infection. Symptoms of feline leukemia include anemia, weakness, progressive weight loss, and cancerous tumors.
Leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, actually occurs in less than 25% of cats infected with the feline leukemia virus. In most cases, the main effect that the virus has on the cat’s body is an overall weakening of the immune system. This leaves the body open to other opportunistic infections like abscesses, upper respiratory infections, and Feline Infectious Peritonitus (FIP).
Jade’s Story: Type 1
Jade is a gorgeous black tabby girl with jade green eyes. She was rescued as an abandoned kitten on the street in Inglewood at 5 months old in 2008, testing postive for leukemia at that time. But she appeared so healthy and acted so snuggly, that we decided to give her a chance and fostered her in isolation for three months at Healing Hearts Animal Rescue in Nashville, TN. At the end of that time, she was retested and came back completely negative. A month later she was adopted by a volunteer.
Peter’s Story: Type 2
Peter is a handsome black and white tuxedo boy with golden eyes and a cute white tip on the end of his tail. He was born on Maple Street in Madison to Athena, a young semi-feral calico who was leukemia-positive. Most kittens who are born with leukemia do not live long, but Peter was lucky enough to inherit his father Tyrone’s strong immune system. We had hoped Peter would recover from his leukemia like Jade, so he was fostered in isolation at Healing Hearts as well. But he tested positive initially at 4 months old, again at 5 months, and at 6 months old. However, Peter remains full of energy and health, eating heartily and already weighs 7 lbs at 6 months. He has no symptoms of illness whatsoever, which makes him a carrier at this point. Peter is looking for a home where he can be the only cat and enjoy plenty of cuddle time. He is comfortable with gentle, cat-friendly dogs and would be fine with children too. If you are interested in adopting this sweet snuggly boy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call or text (615) 290-2454.
Athena’s Story: Type 3
Athena was a lovely calico girl who was dumped on Maple Street last spring at about 12 weeks old. She quickly became the chosen companion of Tyrone, the enormous black alpha male on our street. We didn’t see much of her until this past February, when Tyrone brought Athena to eat at the food dish on our front porch, along with her two kittens, tiny tabby Precious and her big tuxedo brother, Peter. When her family was rescued, the kittens were four months old and Athena was approximately eleven months old. This means that Athena gave birth at seven months old and became pregnant at only five months old. Between a hard life growing up on a street where feline leukemia and FIV are rampant, getting pregnant very young, and struggling to care for her kittens, it is not surprising that Athena acquired feline leukemia. By the time she tested positive, at eleven months old, she was beginning to show signs of illness and euthanasia was the kindest option.
Testing for Feline Leukemia
Whenever you bring home a cat or kitten that was living outside or spending time outside, it is absolutely essential that the new cat be kept in isolation from your own cats until it has been tested for feline leukemia. The simplest way to do this is to simply take a new cat or kitten straight to the vet to be tested before even bringing it into your house at all. If this is not possible, then keep the cat in an easy-to-clean isolation area like a large cage or a bathroom until it can be taken to the vet for testing.
The blood test for feline leukemia and AIDS only requires a small amount of blood and is usually completed in approximately ten minutes. If the cat is negative, then there is nothing to worry about. If the cat comes back positive, then evaluate the cat’s overall health. Have a thorough physical exam done by your veterinarian and it is also good to have some basic bloodwork done to find out if any of the major organs or systems have been affected.
A positive cat that is starting to shows signs of illness will usually look thin, have poor coat quality, may have tumors, infections or abscesses. Be sure to check the teeth and gums for infection. If signs of illness are already evident, then the prognosis is poor.
However, if the cat’s overall physical condition is excellent with no obvious signs of illness, then, when possible, it is worth keeping the cat in isolation for one month before retesting. If the cat remains positive but otherwise in good health, a single-cat home is a much better solution than euthanasia.